The Trump administration improperly assessed the costs of moving two USDA research agencies to Kansas City by among other things failing to account for the large-scale staff losses that would follow, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The process that then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue used to select Kansas City in 2019 was inconsistent with the “stated objectives of improving its ability to attract and retain highly-qualified staff; placing its resources closer to stakeholders; and reducing costs to taxpayers,” GAO said in a report released Thursday. GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.

USDA estimated moving the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City would save about 11%, or nearly $300 million, in real estate and staffing costs over a 15-year period.

During the selection process, USDA prioritized areas with lower costs of living and sufficient commercial real estate and failed to account for such issues as the cost of hiring and training new employees, the reduced productivity that resulted from losing experienced employees, and the loss of institutional knowledge, the report said.

USDA officials told the GAO investigators the savings estimate was based on the agencies maintaining full employment levels, which produced “conservative estimates of physical relocation costs.”

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The department didn’t survey workers to determine whether they would stay with the agencies, although ERS employees were estimating an attrition rate of as much as 75%, GAO said.

USDA reported in January that it had made “enormous strides” in filling vacancies at the two agencies. As of Jan. 1, ERS had 266 permanent employees and NIFA had 296. The agencies had a total of about 700 employees before the relocation.

The Biden administration didn’t reverse the relocation, and a senior USDA official pushed back on the GAO report, complaining in part that GAO was improperly using its own cost-benefit analysis in evaluating Perdue’s decision.

“As an Executive Branch agency, USDA objects to the implication that an agency, in making evidence-based decisions, must implicitly target its process to jump through the hoops of a Legislative Branch agency’s mode of ‘economic analysis’ that may not be in accord with agency authorities, policy, and other applicable governmentwide guidance,” wrote Shefali Mehta, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics. Her letter was appended to the GAO report. 

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